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Law firms face Al-Sweady inquiry flak
From the Financial Times of Sun, 21 Dec 2014 19:08:01 GMT
Defence secretary Michael Fallon©PA

Defence secretary Michael Fallon

They are law firms best known for bringing human rights cases against the government in the British courts, with one even being dubbed “the scourge of the army”.

But Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day came under political fire after the Al-Sweady inquiry — set up to investigate claims that UK forces tortured and murdered Iraqis — concluded that the most serious allegations were “deliberate lies, ­reckless speculation and ingrained ­hostility”.

The Solicitors Regulatory Authority is investigating possible breaches of professional standards at both firms. The authority has the power to issue sanctions ranging from a £2,000 fine to referring lawyers to appear before a disciplinary tribunal where they can be struck off.

Defence secretary Michael Fallon is also looking at whether some legal aid costs for a 2009 judicial review can be clawed back. He attacked the “shameful attempt to use our legal system, our legal system, to attack and falsely impugn our armed forces”.

Conservative MP David Mowat said: “We are the only country in the world that pays legal aid to sue our own army. We then pay millions to defend our army in those cases.”

The Al-Sweady affair has highlighted the government’s growing frustration with the legal claims originating from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr Fallon has complained about the “lodging of claims on a virtually industrial scale” and noted that the two conflicts had spawned three public inquiries, 200 judicial reviews or applications for them, and 300 personal injury claims from Iraqis or Afghans costing about £87m. Some £11m had been paid in fees to solicitors and counsel for Afghan and Iraqi personal injury claims, he said.

Mr Fallon criticised a “delay” by Public Interest Lawyers, acting on behalf of the Iraqis in the Al-Sweady inquiry, in withdrawing allegations of unlawful killing from the long running inquiry until this year.

He also pointed to late disclosure to the inquiry of a potentially explosive document, which had been on file at Leigh Day, suggesting that the Iraqi detainees were members of the Mahdi Army, a militia that had been fighting US and British forces.

Had the Legal Services Commission been aware of the document back in 2008 it would have refused legal aid for a judicial review brought by Public Interest Lawyers in 2009, he said. That would mean the Al-Sweady public inquiry that followed may never have been set up.

In retrospect, we now recognise that the document should not have been thrown away

- Leigh Day

Leigh Day, which acted for the Iraqis in a separate civil lawsuit, said its litigation had been put on hold by the courts pending the outcome of the judicial review in 2009 and so only a few internal case reviews had been conducted. It did not represent the Iraqis in the inquiry as they were represented by Public Interest Lawyers and it was not asked by the inquiry to disclose all relevant documents until August 2013.

The one-page Arabic document, known as the “militia document”, had been handed to Leigh Day during a 2007 trip by its lawyers to Syria but the firm says it failed to recognise its significance. It was handed over to the inquiry by Leigh Day along with a typed English translation. A handwritten English translation was shredded. Leigh Day has said there is no dispute about the “accuracy of our typed translation” but “in retrospect, we now recognise that the document should not have been thrown away”. It says it has training in place to stop similar mistakes happening again.

John Dickinson, of Public Interest Lawyers, said the major concession its clients made to the Al-Sweady inquiry this year only came after Ministry of Defence disclosure and witness evidence and was not connected to the militia document. PIL told the inquiry it did not know about the existence of the document until August 2013.

The Legal Aid Agency was asked in April to investigate both law firms and concluded that there was no case to answer. PIL said it had not been notified of any pending SRA investigation.

The criticism that both firms have attracted this month contrasts with court victories against the government in the past.

Leigh Day, founded in 1987 by former Greenpeace UK chairman Martyn Day, has led high profile legal challenges, including securing compensation for former prisoners of war from the German and Japanese governments and winning £20m for a group of elderly Kenyans suing the UK government over alleged abuses committed in the colonial era.

Phil Shiner, who founded Public Interest Lawyers in 1999, was nominated as human rights lawyer of the year in 2004 by campaign groups Liberty and Justice. His firm launched a judicial review on behalf of Gurkha prisoners of war and took up the case of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi who died in the custody of British soldiers. It has also challenged the government on issues such as library closures.

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